NSF RFE: Pandemic Impact: Undergraduates’ Social Capital and Engineering Professional Skills

Project’s NSF Page


Julie P. Martin, Ph.D. - EETI Director and Professor of Engineering Education

Grant Details

Funder: Division of Engineering Education and Centers, National Science Foundation
Amount: $284,408.00
Award number: 2129308
Start and End date: September 2021 – August 2024


The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many changes in educating engineers, one of the more pronounced changes is the relationships students have with each other and campus-based personnel. For example, a recent study of engineering undergraduates found that first-year students struggled to develop relationships on campus that support their success, whereas senior students relied on their previous close relationships on campus. As we transition out of the pandemic, this research will investigate how engineering undergraduates use relationships with other students, faculty, and staff as well as off-campus contacts to develop their professional skills. Non-technical professional skills such as teamwork, communication, and professional ethics are essential for the professional formation as engineers, as today’s engineers work in diverse teams to solve complex 21st-Century problems. These skills have traditionally been developed both within the engineering curriculum (in courses) and outside of the curriculum, in activities such as student organizations, student chapters of engineering professional societies, and internships. As engineering higher education inevitably changes in the post-pandemic world, this work will offer research to support the design of effective in-person and virtual opportunities for students to develop and practice professional skills. Knowledge generated from this project will promote the professional formation of engineers by providing educators and students with recommendations and examples of how to foster professional skill development both as part of the engineering curriculum and outside of it.

The project’s overarching research question is: “How do engineering undergraduates leverage relationships (operationalized as social capital) to gain opportunities to develop professional skills”? The social capital theoretical framing acknowledges the importance of social relationships in developing these skills within and outside of the engineering curriculum. The research will use an explanatory sequential mixed methods design with carefully designed quantitative and qualitative phases and special attention to mixing. The quantitative phase will utilize a survey instrument from NSF-funded projects (EEC-2030083 and EEC-2030133), the Undergraduate Student Support Survey, along with a Professional Skills Opportunities survey. We will study three groups of engineering learners who started during various phases of the pandemic, recruiting up to 1,500 students for the quantitative phase. The research design will use stratified purposeful sampling to select a subset of about 30-45 survey participants for interviews. The project’s propagation plan focuses on (1) reciprocal partnership with participating institutions by providing tailored and contextualized findings along with recommendations for practice for (2) the (inter)national engineering education community. Within these audiences, the researchers will promote interactive dialogue with (1) engineering instructors and teaching assistants, (2) advisors of co-curricular activities, (3) student leaders of engineering co-curricular activities, and (4) administrators and staff. The researchers will share findings with these audiences and collaboratively develop plans for helping students build academic social capital and professional skills. This work has potential to transform engineering education by promoting development of much-needed professional skills for future members of the workforce. The work will ultimately contribute to tomorrow’s engineering work by ensuring that workforce members possess essential non-technical skills that facilitate the success of their engineering teams and designs.

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